Thursday, February 4, 2010

It’s all about money, except it isn’t

I wish there was a lesson we could learn from Tuesday’s primaries about the effect that big bucks can have on turning an otherwise-unknown political dreamer into a government official.

Because what we can see from the apparent results of the primary season is that it is possible to “buy” oneself the nomination of a major political party for a government post. Except in those occasions when money just isn’t enough to get an Election Day victory.

WHERE SHOULD WE start? The election results remain close, and I suppose there’s a chance that the absentee ballots yet to be counted could shift the winners. But it seems that our state is going to be saddled with a lieutenant governor with no prior electoral experience who only managed to beat out people who do understand the ways of government because he had enough money to buy the television airtime that made his name better known than the pols who have worked in public service for some time.

Scott Lee Cohen is the pawnbroker (he prefers to talk about his other business interest, the environmentally-friendly cleaning substances company) who came up with a campaign fund of $1.9 million to pay the costs of getting the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.

That doesn’t mean he managed to capture the imagination of the electorate in Illinois in such a way that people felt compelled to donate money to his campaign. The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform earlier this week noted in a study that 98 percent of his campaign fund came from his own personal wealth.

Now I expect that during the course of the next nine months, we’re going to hear countless wisecracks about Cohen and pawnshops and whether he knows enough about anything to be considered a government official.

BUT THE ONE thing that his Republican opposition can’t do is try to lambast him for “buying” himself a government post. For their own apparent lieutenant governor candidate, Jason Plummer, had a campaign fund of $1.1 million – of which 95 percent came from loans he was able to obtain because of his family’s business (they own lumber yards).

No other candidate among the 10 other people who tried seeking the post that puts one in line to become governor in the event of an unfortunate circumstance depriving us of our legitimately elected chief executive had as much as $350,000 to spend, and some had much less.

In short, we’re going to have someone that proverbial “heartbeat away” from the Executive Mansion who could theoretically be called upon to take over state government who got the post because he could afford to pay for flashier campaign ads promoting his name – and put them on the air in better television timeslots – than any of his opponents.

But if things remain stable (and in this week’s election results, that is a long-shot), it would seem that the guy who tried to use the same strategy to buy the Republican nomination for the top post appears to have fallen short – although for the first couple of hours after the polls closed Tuesday night, it seemed ever so possible that we’d be pondering the possibility of “Gov. Andrew McKenna.”

WITHOUT MONEY, THE dynamic of the Republican primary for Illinois governor would have been a two-way fight between two state senators. Bill Brady of Bloomington and Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale would have been the guys to take seriously, with some people who have a sense of recent history giving their support to one-time Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan.

Brady is the candidate who voters outside the Chicago area think of as the front-runner, while Dillard has that same aura within the Chicago suburbs that account for nearly half of the state’s population.

Ryan’s chances of winning would have hinged on whether or not a particular region’s “distaste” for “the other guy” would be so intense that neither Brady nor Dillard could take enough votes.

Instead, McKenna (the one-time chairman of the Illinois Republican Party whom some GOPers blame for the party’s downfall of recent years) was able to use personal wealth to get his campaign commercials on the air “early and often,” just like the way Republicans want to believe that Chicago Democrats vote.

REMEMBER THOSE GAG ads with the “Blagojevich hair” being put on top of everybody and everything (including the Statehouse in Springpatch)? All his nasty accusations against everybody in sight?

Somebody had to pay for them. It appears it was McKenna, or actually, his wife.

The Campaign for Political Reform study showed that the largest contributor to any campaign was Mary McKenna, who used her wealth to lend her husband’s gubernatorial bid just over $2,280,000 – which made up about 40 percent of his $5.6 million campaign fund for the past year.

I’d like to think the fact that McKenna appears to have finished fourth in the GOP primary (albeit only 3 percentag e points behind the possible Brady/Dillard winner) is because the electorate of Illinois was intelligent enough not to be swayed by campaign cash converted into political advertising spots.

BUT THAT WOULD make me as delusional as a Chicago Cubs fan.

That money made him competitive by making it possible for his name to be burned into the brains of would-be voters (although I wonder if the fact that some three-quarters of registered voters across the state chose NOT to vote at all is something that we can blame McKenna for).

Without that cash, his campaign would have lagged lower on the primary scale – possibly somewhere in the “single digits” with candidates like Dan Proft, the conservative ideologue who knows how to run campaigns but may not exactly be candidate material.

Then again, I probably shouldn’t slander Proft by comparing him to McKenna, because I suspect that when it comes to the passion that one has for issues, Proft would probably kick Andy’s butt in a one-on-one competition.


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